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Preparing for the Root Cellar: Harvesting and Post-Harvest Handling of Vegetables

If you time the harvest right and pay attention to your post-harvest handling of vegetables and fruits, you can get the most of your storage crops.

| May 30, 2013

  • “Root Cellaring” by Mike and Nancy Bubel includes specific storage requirements for each crop and building instructions for big and small root cellars.
    Cover Courtesy Storey Publishing
  • Preparing root vegetables for storage
    Illustration Courtesy Storey Publishing

Root cellaring is an energy-saving way to store vegetables and fruits using the earth’s naturally cool, stable temperatures. In Root Cellaring (Storey Publishing, 1991), Mike and Nancy Bubel go beyond the traditional underground root cellar and discuss the whole range of ingenious techniques — from garden trenches to root boxes — to put by as much garden produce as you can without processing. In this excerpt from Chapter 4 of their book, they explain how to maximize your crops’ lives in the root cellar by timing the harvest just right and employing the best techniques for the post-harvest handling of vegetables and fruits.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Root Cellaring.

When heavy frost sparkles and crunches in the grass each morning, we know it’s time to begin to think about bringing in the root vegetables. The soft fruits—tomatoes, peppers, and such—have already been picked when the first light frosts struck, and stored away for short-term keeping. Hard-shelled fruits like squash and pumpkins were left in the field to cure after they matured and are now sprawled on the porch, waiting to come in where it’s warmer. The roots, bless them, wait patiently underground—and even continue to grow during the weeks of fine weather that often follow the first frost.

It’s a good thing that the fall harvest can be done in stages, for when at last it is time to bring in the roots, there’s a lot to be done—digging, trimming, rounding up containers, gathering sawdust, sand, and leaves, lugging baskets inside, and packing the vegetables away. If you grow a lot of root vegetables as we do, you can count on spending several weekends getting them out of the ground and into the root cellar.

Timing of the harvest. This is important. Although soft fruits should be gathered before frost can nip them, and hard-shelled fruits should be protected from heavy frost, root vegetables may be left in the ground even until black frost—that unmistakable hard freeze that kills off even the last green weeds and blackens the beet tops. It is, in fact, a good idea to leave the root vegetables in the ground as long as you possibly can, so that when you do harvest them the temperature in your root cellar will no longer be affected by Indian summer quirks and will stay low enough for good keeping.

Experience (translate: doing it wrong the first time) has shown us that there are two things to watch out for here. One is the tendency of some root crops, especially beets, rutabagas, and sometimes turnips, to shoulder their way above ground. When exposed like this, they should be mulched to prevent damage from severe frost. Second, it’s awfully easy to get busy with other garden clean-up chores and postpone the harvest too long—until the ground is frozen and hard or impossible to dig. Those Indian summer days beguile us into thinking they’ll last forever. Watch the weather and the calendar. Try to wait out that last lingering spell of mild weather, but be realistic, too. Once November has gotten a foothold, winter’s on its way. In the northern parts of New England, the Midwest, and the Great Plains, make that October. In the upper South, though, you can safely wait until December.

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